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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92 (1811-1812)
rec. July-August 2018, Großer Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna SONY CLASSICAL19439743772 [39:50]
This exciting release is the second in Teodor Currentzis’s controversial Beethoven cycle that has had mixed reactions. Last year I reviewed his Symphony No 5, summing it up as ‘just too “scientific” a traversal’. I thought there were far deeper recordings; Currentzis’s is interesting in parts but does not achieve a satisfactory whole. Mark S Zimmer and Lee Denham wrote much more positive reviews. I hoped to feel upbeat this time. I am pleased to say that it is a very interesting performance of the Seventh but it still has certain “business” that may not appeal to some.
The first movement lays down a marker for Currentzis’s style, dramatic and disturbing. I listened a few times and began to enter his world. I appreciate what he is trying to convey: the rawness of Beethoven’s music and the effect it must have had on audiences over 200 years ago. I will always appreciate the interpretations of Carlos Kleiber (on DG), Klemperer (on Warner and on Pristine Classical), Beecham (on Warner) and above all Toscanini, whose near-perfect traversal in 1936 in New York (on Pristine Classical; review) I love with a passion. Still, we have all these and more, so let us welcome a fresh viewpoint. I thought Currentzis excellent in the first movement, exciting, trenchant and committed despite moments when I felt a lapse in tension, possibly a retake, but overall it was fine.
The Allegretto starts so quietly after the initial chord that one will be tempted to increase the volume. I cannot recall such a dynamic change in any of the readings I know. The pulse of the movement is maintained, and the recording – excellent in a home setting – brings out the winds sublimely. Peter Quantrill’s very informative notes point out that the movement was repeated on first performance. I heard Klemperer’s famous illicit 1955 stereo recording (on Warner; review) in the film 84 Charing Cross Road. It made me first really appreciate this work and fall in love with it.
For me, the third movement Presto - Assai meno presto is the key to the whole work. The tension and frustration of the deaf genius seem to be present in every bar, boiling away like a volcano about to explode. I first heard this movement on its own on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review. I was slightly irritated by its relentlessness but I understand now that this music is not meant to be a comfortable listen. While Wagner called the Seventh “the apotheosis of dance”, it is a bacchanalian dance which Currentzis and his ensemble convey vividly.
The notes allude to Weber’s purported comment that Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse. Never mind the canard, Currentzis’s performance may be conclusive evidence. Well, who wants pleasant, smooth Beethoven?
The final movement Allegro con brio is definitely what my long-suffering wife calls “full of oomph”. Beecham, whose Beethoven Seventh I adore, wickedly described this movement thus: “It’s like a lot of yaks jumping around!”. This version for sure has some very excited and energetic yaks. Heard in the context of the whole performance, it works very effectively, and brings this exhilarating and well-executed recording to a suitably electrifying conclusion.
Like John Quinn before he reviewed Currentzis’s traversal of Mahler Sixth, another stormy work, I hesitated before asking for this disc. I had not warmed to his Beethoven Fifth, and I am reluctant to approve of a full-price CD with just the Seventh. But now I am delighted to have had the opportunity to audition this recording. It conveys the turbulent spirit of Beethoven and shines new light on this perpetually stimulating and life-affirming work. This is not for every day, but set aside some time, open your mind and allow yourself to be absorbed by a very special experience.
I look forward to more of the cycle, and will go back to the Fifth to see how I feel about it now.